Christina Bohannan, Iowa House District 85’s likely next representative, pledges to use her slot in the House serving a deep-blue district to speak up for progressive policies and “take back the majority.”
The University of Iowa law professor pulled off a rare primary election victory over a sitting incumbent earlier this month, defeating 20-year incumbent Vicki Lensing with a commanding 66% of the vote. Bohannan currently faces no Republican opponent for the general election in the district, which includes portions of Iowa City and the University of Iowa campus.
The race saw one of the highest voter turnouts in the state — Bohannan said her victory comes with a desire from her new constituents for liberal breakthroughs in the Republican-majority Iowa House.
“The things I talked a lot about, both in public settings as well as to individual voters when I called them, was the need to have someone who was really out there making the case for certain legislation, for raising awareness about state politics, for raising money to support Democrats in other districts,” Bohannan said.
“I feel that as a legislator from Iowa City, I am in a safe district to do that. There are a lot of Democratic representatives around the state in swing districts who aren’t going to feel comfortable out there beating the drum every single time about an issue because they have to be a little more careful. I can do that for them. It’s my responsibility.”
Bohannan, who was elected during a week of protests over the murder of George Floyd, said that her primary victory — while exciting — comes with motivation for her to push further racial justice reform next year at the Legislature.
“It’s a strange feeling to be excited about something going on personally while seeing what’s happening in our state and around the nation,” said Bohannan, the faculty chair of the University of Iowa’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
“It’s a time when we all really need to take action … [The Legislature] took the criminal justice reform bill, which was very good, and I was really happy to see that. But obviously, it’s just a very small step. It’s a good step, but it’s a small step.”
In a rare act of bipartisanship, the Legislature unanimously passed that criminal justice reform bill near the end of its 2020 session last week, as Lensing wrapped up her time in the House.
“That’s a long time,” Lensing said during a farewell speech on the House floor, speaking of her loss to Bohannan after serving the District since 2001. “Not that serving another term would not have been welcome. It’s just not meant to be.”
Around the time Lensing was elected, Bohannan moved to Iowa City with her now ex-husband when he took a faculty slot at the University of Iowa College of Engineering. She then started teaching law at the university and has since focused on constitutional and copyright law along with intellectual property. She also served as the Faculty Senate President.
Growing up in a trailer in rural Florida, Bohannan said her parents never graduated from high school and her dad struggled to provide for the family as a construction worker. She paid for her degree in environmental engineering from the University of Florida by also working for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
After then attending the UF College of Law, Bohannan clerked for the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Montgomery, Alabama.
Upon arriving in Iowa City 20 years ago, Bohannan said she’s created a life with her daughter Mira Bohannan Kumar, City High Senior Class President, and has become active in Democratic Party politics and advocacy.
The Iowa City resident said she was impressed by the state’s strong record on civil rights and education, among other things, when she first came in 2000. Now, in 2020, Bohannan said she can see a shift in Iowa’s values.
“What happened was I was looking around and I saw that we have a pretty decent progressive history in Iowa … For a long time, we were a champion of education. We were known for educationally throughout the country … We were a first in a lot of civil rights areas, first for a number of black Americans, for poor, for women, for LGBT,” she said.
“And I just saw over the last decade that all of that was getting eroded and stripped away kind of one by one by one. And that really, really concerns me because it just it was not what I thought Iowa was. And I felt like we were really losing the values that make Iowa, Iowa.”
Bohannan said she started seriously thinking about running for office last summer, announcing her bid in October after she was encouraged by many in the district to be Lensing’s primary challenger.
Lensing, 62, will leave the Legislature after serving 16 years in the minority and four in the majority, acknowledging those when saying goodbye to her colleagues last week.
“There were four years that I served in the majority, and those were golden years,” she said. “To be able to propose legislation and see it pass on the House floor, to serve as a chairperson of a committee, to see bills through your committee and know that there may be tough votes you have to take for a good result in the end, to meet with constituents and be able to take action upon their concerns — those are sweet memories for me.”
Lensing said she’s most proud of her work on pay equity issues, voters’ rights, human rights and civil rights, including same-sex marriage and education — which are very similar to the priorities Bohannan outlined for her time in the House. She just wants to emphasize these priorities even more.
“I felt like we as a party was not doing everything that we could to take some of that majority back in the legislature. The House, the Senate and the governorship are all held by Republicans, and they have been moving to the right pretty strongly,” Bohannan said. “We need to work harder than we are at. Restoring some balance to the legislature. Where we are is not acceptable, and every single one of us needs to be doing everything we can.”
The Iowa House’s narrow Republican majority is on the ballot this November as their 53-47 advantage is at risk — eight House Republicans are retiring this year compared to two Democrats. Bohannan said she’s going to do her part in helping Democrats flip some Republican seats.
“I’m working with some people right now to identify the districts that are the most viable,” she said. “I will be working on raising some money both out of Johnson County and maybe some neighboring places to do that work … I’m already kind of looking at where I can be most helpful and most impactful.”
by Isabella Murray
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